In researching my book Burning Embers, which is set in Kenya in the 1970s, I read a lot of African materials – legends, fables, proverbs, poems, songs – so that the traditional tribal culture with which the protagonists’ modern, more westernised world overlaps was authentic. I was particularly interested in materials that focused on hunter and prey, and on the many wild animals that roam Africa, since these are key themes in Burning Embers.
One of the African stories I came across and liked was the tale of the hunter and the lion, told by the Bura people of Nigeria. The basic story is that of a hunter who is responsible for bringing back meat to feed his village. One day, while out hunting, he comes across a lion – king of all the animals. He is terrified; sure this is the end for him. But instead of attacking him, the lion, which looks thin and ill, watches him sadly. Finally, the hunter kneels to the lion, in recognition of his majesty, and the lion comes to the hunter and opens his mouth wide. Inside the hunter sees a bone stuck at the back of the lion’s throat. The hunter reaches into the lion’s mighty mouth and removes the bone. The lion is overjoyed, and licks the hunter in thanks. Then he runs off and herds towards the hunter a group of antelope. The hunter shoots three with his bow and arrows, and returns to his village a hero for providing so much meat. The hunter puts some meat aside, and after the villagers’ feast he takes it out to the plains for the lion. From that day forth, the hunter and the lion are great friends.
Like me, you may have read this story and at once seen an echo of another story you’ve heard, most likely as a child – that of Androcles and the lion. The basic story is that a fugitive slave, Androcles, takes shelter in a cave, which turns out to be a lion’s den. The lion he encounters is wounded – it has a thorn in its paw. Androcles removes the thorn and tends the wound, and the lion recovers. Years later, Androcles is captured and sentenced to death by wild animal in an arena in Rome. He is thrown in the arena and there he meets the beast that is to kill him: it is his old friend, the lion. The lion refuses to hurt Androcles, and the slave is pardoned.
The Androcles story has been traced back to the second century to a work called Attic Nights by Latin author Aulus Gellius. It appears in various works subsequently, and is most known to us now through Aesop’s fables and George Bernard Shaw’s play Androcles and the Lion.
Many moral tales resonate through different narratives, and the idea of man and beast being friends instead of enemies has fascinated civilisations through the ages. In Burning Embers, I wanted to explore the difference between a hunter who had no interest in befriending his prey; and one who actually cared. Thus Dale, Coral’s former fiancé, is a hardened hunter with no concern for the effect of his actions, and his rash and foolhardy approach sees him injure a trapped leopard. Rafe, meanwhile, has compassion and respect for animals, and he has the courage to approach the furious, bleeding leopard and free it from its trap, releasing it back into the wild: no longer hunter and prey, but fellow creatures of Africa.